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Jeddah: Saudi Arabia maintained their three-point lead over the United Arab Emirates at the top of Group A of the 2018 FIFA World Cup/2019 AFC Asian Cup joint-qualifiers after second-half goals from Mohammed Al Sahlawi and Taiseer Al Jassam secured a 2-0 win over Malaysia on Thursday.

The UAE had kept the pressure on the Saudis by defeating Palestine 2-0 in Thursday’s earlier Group A fixture to go level on 16 points ahead of the Green Falcons’ penultimate Preliminary Round 2 match.

But with the joint-qualifiers leading scorer Al Sahlawi netting his 13th of the campaign five minutes after the interval at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium (having also been on target in the away fixture against Malaysia which was abandoned due to crowd trouble before the Saudis were subsequently awarded a 3-0 win) and veteran midfielder Al Jassam adding a second with quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Bert van Marwijk’s side restored their three-point advantage over their Gulf rivals with one round of matches remaining.

The UAE will host Saudi Arabia on Tuesday looking to avenge the 2-1 defeat they endured when the two West Asian giants met in Jeddah back in October while Malaysia will be hoping third-place Palestine will not lose to bottom-of-the-table Timor Leste in the other Group A encounter.

If the Timorese can pick up their first win of the joint-qualifiers in Hebron next Tuesday then they will finish with five points, one more than Malaysia, who ended their campaign with four points after the curtain came down on the 2010 ASEAN champions’ disappointing campaign with Thursday’s defeat to the Saudis.

Eight group winners will advance to the third round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, as well as straight to the 2019 Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates, along with the four best runners-up.

The other four runners-up will progress to the third round of qualifying for the Asian Cup, along with all the third-placed teams and the four best fourth-placed teams.

The remaining sides will have to negotiate past two rounds of playoffs for one of the final eight spots in the Asian Cup third qualifying round.

Photo: AFP